World Health Organization (WHO) Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan (File image: Reuters).
Dr Soumya Swaminathan is an achiever in her own right. She is a chief scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO) and known for her research on tuberculosis (TB) and HIV.
With International Father’s Day approaching, Dr Soumya remembered the things she learned from her father, M.S. Swaminathan, regarded by many as the Father of India’s Green Revolution. He was an agricultural scientist who served as the director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and later the principal secretary in the ministry of agriculture.
Specifically, Dr Soumya learned from her father how to take criticism well and continue to work towards finding solutions to a problem.
“My father shot into prominence when he was very young,” she told The New York Times (NYT). “He collaborated with the Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug and developed new, high-yielding varieties of seeds for wheat and rice, and convinced farmers around Delhi and Punjab to grow them. Wheat production went up three or four times. From being a nation that had to import food grains from the United States, by the early 1970s, we were basically food secure. My father became known as the Father of the Green Revolution.”
But then questions arose about the harmful side-effects of pesticides, and a hero almost turned into a villain. Swaminathan’s own colleagues attacked him. The press covered the issue every day. At school, a young Soumya would have to answer discomfiting questions about her father from her friends.
“Kids at school would ask, ‘Did your father do these bad things?’ And the atmosphere at home was somber,” Dr Soumya told NYT. “I remember asking my father, ‘Don’t you hate these people who write all these nasty things about you?’”
His reply was surprising, and left a lasting impression.
“No, no, no. I don’t hate them,” he said.
His reasoning was that there was no point in being angry. And while criticism could seem unfair, there was also something you could take from it.
“My father was a problem solver and he did it by listening to the people who were most affected by the problem,” Dr Soumya told NYT. “On weekends or holidays, my sisters and I, and sometimes our family’s gardener’s kids, would often go with him to the farming villages. While we were running around in the sugar cane and wheat fields playing hide and seek, he would sit with the farmers and hear how they were doing with the new seeds and if they were having any problems, and be open to changing course if needed. He would always say to the farmers, ‘This will only be a success story if it works for you’.”
Dr Soumya has not forgotten this learning.
“When I am in a situation where I’m in disagreement or have a completely different view, I may feel at the moment quite upset,” she said. “But when I reflect further or try to understand where the other person is coming from, I start to say, ‘OK, this is why they are so negative or angry’. And that is when you start getting solutions.”